Opinion: Trump Attacks Own Base by Slashing Funding to Rural School Districts

We hear these days about the importance of the African American vote within the Democratic base, and rightly so. This base has played a key role in the Democratic primaries and, according to all indications, will play a key role in determining the Democratic presidential candidate.

Democratic candidates would also be wise as well as both humane and politically responsible, though, to pay attention to another population that, while historically endorsing Trump, has been nonetheless largely ignored by Trump, and is in dire need of attention and support. With some much needed attention from Democratic candidates, these voters could certainly make the difference necessary to defeat Trump in key states like Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

And it is also a vital matter of standing up for the equal rights of all and serving all constituencies, making particular efforts to serve the least visible among us in cultivating a democratic society and economy.

I’m talking about rural America, which isn’t, of course, exclusively white but which is nonetheless a white majority–and unquestionably, and more to the point, a forgotten one.

What is one of the latest key developments in terms of Trump turning his back on rural–and, really, working-class–America?

Trump’s Department of Education, led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, is up to its old tricks of cutting funding for public education and doing its best to make public education less rather than more accessible to Americans and making the nation’s public education system increasingly unequal.

And these cuts are targeted to hit rural America, a typical stronghold of Trump support, the hardest.

This time, through what Andrew Naughtie, reporting for The Independent, calls “an under-the-radar bookkeeping change at the Department of Education,” DeVos’s squad is setting up over 800 public schools across the nation’s primarily rural school districts to lose thousands of dollars per school in key funding. These cuts will cost these schools everything from reading specialists, to computers, to counselors, to language lessons for non-English speakers and more.  Really, we are talking about the basics.

How can these under-resourced schools offer an education equal to what students receive elsewhere in America and prepare their students to compete in our economy and make their most meaningful contributions to American society?

And what’s more, as Erica L. Green reports in The New York Times, rural schools are already, according to advocates, “the most underfunded and ignored” in the country, even though they serve nearly one in seven public school students.  These students, according to a report from the Rural School and Community Trust, “are largely invisible to state policymakers because they live in states where education policy is dominated by highly visible urban problems.”

What has happened exactly?

Well, public schools have previously been able to demonstrate they qualify for the Rural and Low-Income School Program by counting the number of students who qualify for federally subsidized free and reduced-price meals in order to determine poverty rates in the schools. The Department of Education, however, recently determined many of these schools that had been receiving funding had qualified erroneously, according to the Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates. To qualify for funds, schools must demonstrate 20% of their area’s students live in poverty. Using this census data is less accurate than actually using the data of who actually is attending a school.

The push-back against this policy move has been decidedly and firmly bi-partisan.  Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine indicated that this change would mean 100 of the 149 schools in Maine previously receiving funding from this program would no longer qualify, costing its schools $1.2 million in funding.  Democratic Senator Jon Tester of Montana underscored that 220 of its most remote schools would lose some $400,000 in funding.

The Trump administration is not making life better for our rural populations, despite the hopes of advocates that it would, given these regions’ electoral support for Trump.

Alan Richard, for example, a board member of the Rural School and Community Trust, a non-profit advocacy group, told The New York Times, “Rural education advocates definitely hoped that a president elected, in part, because of rural and small-town voters would pay more attention to rural children. Even after the last election, with all the attention to rural America, little has been done to correct the inequity so many rural students face.”

Trump can be called out for his broken campaign promises, his outright lies, and his complete lack of concern for people in need.

The real question is whether or not Democrats will listen to, pay attention to, and take up the concerns and cause of our rural populations.

Senator Amy Klobuchar spoke to and about rural America. At times, Senator Kamala Harris did as well. Both, of course, are no longer in the running to be the Democratic presidential candidate.

Other than that, we don’t hear too much from Democratic candidates regarding rural America.

And it also needs to be said that there is a tendency in Democratic politics to demonize and dismiss poor white and white working-class people in America as racist and backward, as not on board with the progressive politics of change.

Maybe listening, paying attention to, and creating actual policy to address the needs of these Americans—as opposed to dismissing them—would go a long way towards courting these voters.

It would certainly go a long way toward addressing the severe class stratifications in our society and working-class issues overall.

Will Democrats take advantage of this opportunity to serve the needs of those Trump has abandoned, address them, and cultivate their support? Is the Democratic tent big enough? Can Democrats be big enough?

 

 

 

 

Opinion: Can LeBron James Re-Define the Damaging Success Story Americans Have Come to Love?

When Josh Jacobs was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in the first round of the 2019 NFL draft, he received a signing bonus of $6.7 million. The story of the star running back from the University of Alabama quickly circulated, featured in the headlines in major media outlets such as USA Today, NBC News, ESPN, and more.

Perhaps the most prominent headlines highlighted how he used his hefty signing bonus to buy a house for his father.  You see, Jacobs had been homeless as a child, living with his father and his siblings in cars or cheap and temporary hotel rooms.  So, the purchase of the home embodied this reversal fortune, this achievement of success, most succinctly, for sure.

And one can understand why Jacobs’ story grabbed the headlines. Americans love this kind of success story: the rags-to-riches story, the story of individual success, not social success.  In fact, the lowlier and more degraded the social conditions one had to surmount, the more people like the story.

Such stories as Jacobs’ move us, or distract us, to focus on and celebrate an exceptional rise to wealth rather than the rule and reality of poverty and homelessness in America, which, if not inescapable, is certainly difficult to escape.

Indeed, just last week, for CNBC’s feature section “make it,” Kathleen Elkins spotlighted Jacobs again along with other professional athletes, recounting how these stars spent their first big paychecks.

She quotes Jacobs’ reflections on his childhood:

“I normalized a lot of things growing up — like I never thought, Damn, I’m sleeping in a car.”

As for his hardship, he says philosophically, “I feel like it’s an advantage. Because I grind. I wouldn’t get complacent because I never had it easy.”

Jacobs’ normalization of poverty and homelessness mirrors that of the dominant American cultural and political mentality overall.

And when he talks about poverty as a kind of blessing or advantage, rather than a social ill or a failing of our social project that accounts for the waste, destruction, and suffering of millions of American lives, well, this kind of storytelling satisfies the dominant classes in America as well. It absolves us of responsibility for immiserating social conditions such as poverty and homelessness.

We don’t have to deal with the reality that the number of homeless has risen for third year in a row under Trump’s administration or that poverty, in places like West Virginia, is increasing rather decreasing, as the growing number of jobs available in retail and service industries do not pay a living wage. Or, more appropriately, if we recognize it, we are not responsible for it.

Last December, though, NBA superstar and social activist LeBron James released a commercial through Nike that challenges and makes the effort of re-writing the story of American success, of the American Dream itself.

Instead of simply focusing on the success of those who have made it out of poverty, James suggests we ask ourselves as a collective society why we allow and accept the degrading, miserable, life-repressing conditions in which so many live and work in the United States.

We tend not to ask these questions when we hear stories like those of Josh Jacobs because those stories focus on his millions and normalize, even valorize, the misery.

He forecasts a larger dream than that of individual success and riches. What could be, his commercial suggests, a more wonderful and meaningful dream than creating a society without poverty, in which people had their needs met and lived with dignity? What if that were the American Dream?

He narrates the commercial to change our dream, questioning how we tell success stories:

“We always hear about an athlete’s humble beginnings, how they emerged from poverty or tragedy to beat the odds. They’re supposed to be stories of determination that capture the dream. They’re supposed to be stories that let you know that people are special.

“But you know what would be really special? If there were no more humble beginnings.”

And James hasn’t just narrated this story in a commercial. He has realized this story in his f

ounding and creation of his I Promise school read more

Opinion: American Lives Depend on Telling True Story of Trump’s Life-Destroying Economy

What is the story of the U.S. economy?

Not unlike the proverbial elephant subject to scrutiny by a band of blind men, the nation’s economy is subject to multiple narrative descriptions depending on which component of the beast, whether our economy or an elephant, the blind man massages.

Some media pundits have argued that the historically low unemployment rates combined with record stock market performances attest to a strong economy that would propel Trump to victory in 2020 if only he were disciplined enough to stay on point about the economy, stupid.

Others claim focusing on these numbers is akin to grasping the trunk and the tail of the elephant, missing the bigger and much more accurate picture of an economy that has not just failed but actively assaulted the vast majority of Americans.  MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle, for example, has been unrelenting in fleshing out this more comprehensive narrative, insisting, among other points, that the stock market and the overall economy are not the same thing.

It may very well be the more compelling storyteller, or the storyteller who gets access to the most air time, who tilts the 2020 election.

Robert Shiller’s recent splashy book Narrative Economics underscores this point in a general way, arguing that the popular and viral narratives purveyed about the economy don’t so much describe the economy but drive the economic events themselves, regardless of the truth value of the story itself.

As the Yale University professor and Nobel-prize winning economist told CNBC, “It may not be so logical. It may be more, as I said, of animal spirits. This is an emotion that you feel at a certain time that you sense you see in other people. So when you see other people feeling confident about the market, you feel more confident yourself.”

He attributes recent market strength, for example, to Trump’s storytelling prowess: “He’s a motivational speaker. We’ve never had a motivational speaker president before. He knows how to create animal spirits.”

What cannot be emphasized enough, however, is the importance of a crafting an economic narrative that aligns as closely as possible with our economic reality, generating the most effective understanding of the dynamics and performance of the economy–for good decision-making by voters and good policy-making by legislators.

How we tell this story is vital to lives of the American majority, which is why Shiller’s applause for Trump’s motivational stirring of animal spirits is absolutely misplaced and damaging to American lives.

As we get a hold of the entire elephant of the Trump economy, we find an economy on a sugar high, thriving on taxpayer debt, enriching even further the already wealthy, and heading for a crash.

As we limn this elephant, let’s start with the national debt and deficit. Trump inherited a strong economy, and it is typically during healthy economic times that the government pays down the national debt. But both the deficit and debt have grown under Trump’s administration, largely because of his tax cuts that served largely the wealthy.

Reports indicated that in October the federal government’s budget deficit ballooned 34% from a year earlier to $134.5 billion, projecting that the annual deficit will top $1 trillion for the first time in eight years.

The national debt, meanwhile, has surged beyond $22 trillion.

Hmmm. If the economy is booming, shouldn’t the federal government’s coffers be filling up and not depleting?

We can certainly understand how in a time of recession the government would need to provide economic stimulus and thus run a deficit, but when the economy is supposedly experiencing record performance?

When Trump slashed corporate tax rates from 35 to 21 percent, we were told, as usual, that these tax cuts would pay for themselves, create an economy that enriches us all.

Basically, Trump is using the credit of the American worker to enrich corporate America and the wealthiest of Americans. It’s as if, for most Americans, someone maxed out their credit cards and yet they got none of the benefit of the goods and services purchased.

These tax cuts benefited the wealthy and did not trickle down, despite Trump’s promises that companies would invest in workers and not cut jobs. Companies like AT&T, Wells Fargo, and General Motors lobbied for them, promising to re-invest their tax savings in their workers and companies to the benefit off the nation as a whole. And yet all of these companies have engaged in massive layoffs or plant closings. AT&T has eliminated over 23,000 jobs since the tax cuts went into effect, despite receiving a $21 billion windfall from the tax cuts with the prospect of cashing in an additional $3 billion annually in tax savings. In November 2018, GM announced it would be closing five plants, eliminating 14,000 jobs in communities across Ohio, Maryland, Michigan, and Ontario, Canada, while buying back $10 billion in stock and earning a net profit of $8 billion on which the company paid no federal tax. Other automakers have also slashed thousands of jobs, saving billions of dollars.Wells Fargo did raise the minimum wage of its employees, though the tax savings for the company were 47 times larger than the cost of that pay raise to the company; and the company announced its plans in September 2018 to eliminate 26,000 jobs, at the same time that it has raised health insurance costs for its employees.

Meanwhile,

homelessness in the U.S. read more

Cooked: Survival by Zip Code Re-Defines Poverty, Racism, and Climate Change as Disasters

Trump’s controversial tweet about sending the squad of four— Representatives Ayanna Pressley, Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar—back to where they came from has certainly captured the media’s attention the past week, recycling seemingly endless and pointless debate about whether or not Trump is a racist

Don’t we have bigger issues of racism to address other than adjudicating if Trump is racist?

In the midst of Trump’s latest intentionally self-inspired ruckus, I viewed the documentary Cooked: Survival by Zip Code, a co-production between Kartemquin Films and Judith Helfand Productions produced by Fennell Doremus,in its Chicago premiere as it makes it ways across the nation.

While it might be ironic to say the film offers a breath of fresh air in this political climate, given the film in part treats a deadly heat wave that struck Chicago in the summer of 1995, Cooked: Survival by Zip Code, directed by Judith Helfand, does in fact offer fresh and vital perspectives for understanding and addressing racism, poverty, and climate change, doing so by asking us to re-think how we define, respond to, and seek to prevent disasters in our nation.

Helfand’s brilliance in Cooked: Survival by Zip Code is precisely the way she shifts and re-orients our entire social mentality and approach to thinking about racism, poverty, and disaster. She asks us to think about and re-define racism and poverty as, indeed, disasters.

The film argues that if we devoted as much political will as well as social energy and resources to addressing poverty and racism as we do to preparing for so-called “natural” disasters, those disasters would inflict much less devastation on human lives and, more importantly, the quality of human life and the humanity of our culture overall would be exponentially increased for the better. Indeed, we could effectively eliminate poverty and racial disparities, if not racism itself, through more socially conscious, thoughtful, and intentional use of resources.

Opening with Helfand’s personal and family experiences preparing for Hurricane Sandy, underscoring the financial resources individuals require to prepare for a natural disaster, the film moves quickly into the heat wave that struck Chicago in the summer of 1995, accounting for deaths of 739 residents.

Her representation of the disaster and city’s response puts in stark relief the film’s perspective, provoking us to re-think conventional, yet deeply embedded, ways of thinking about death and disaster.

At one point, we see Mayor Richard Daley speaking at press briefing on the heat wave, and we hear him give an update on the number of “nonviolent” deaths resulting from the heat.

Helfand, of course, pressures this characterization of these deaths as “nonviolent,” as the film demonstrates that many of these deaths weren’t so much the result of heat but of poverty and racism; and Helfand moves us to understand poverty and the effects of racism as preventable forms of violence. (On leaving the theater, I was able to pick up a postcard to send to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, asking her to declare a racism a disaster; declaring an event or phenomenon a disaster can qualify a city to receive funding to address the damage done.)

The film expands its scope to provide detailed analyses of the city’s poorer neighborhoods, particularly those inhabited by people of color, to highlight the racial disparities at work in the city. We see neighborhoods that have little access to healthy food (sometimes called “food deserts”) or healthcare, or that don’t receive the same upkeep and services from the city such that they become havens for crime and unsafe. We learn about the racist effects of redlining that prevented African Americans from owning and keeping up homes to create stable neighborhoods.  The lack of safety in neighborhoods prevented people from opening windows and going outside during the heat wave, and the lack of an overall healthy environment weakens a body’s ability to withstand the impact of intense heat.

In contrast to these representations of poverty and racial disparities, Helfand documents how resources are used to respond to and prepare for disasters. For example, in one scene she depicts how Chicago had to rent several enormous refrigerated trucks to store all the corpses during the heat wave, while the living received little help from the city to cope with the heat, highlighting the ridiculously inhumane and racist devaluation of life, particularly Black lives, evident in the way social resources are allocated. This point is compounded in a later moment when Helfand attends an event celebrating a nearby city’s receipt of a grant to prepare for such future disaster.  She provides images of enormous vehicles that cost millions of dollars, including vehicles to refrigerate corpses (that one person interviewed calls “victim containment units”), underscoring the illogical use of resources to deal with the effects of a disaster rather than address the present disaster of poverty and racism.

Indeed, in one scene, we learn that Chicago received a $250,000 grant to deal with tornado relief, even though over the past six decades the Chicago area averages one death per year due to tornadoes (30 years ago a tornado hit a southwest suburb causing 60 deaths). The film compares this number to the 3200 African America women who die of breast cancer in this region annually, highlighting the horror of our priorities and, again, the inefficient and inhumane allocation of resources.

She also highlights the millions of dollars the government spends to prepare for a Midwestern earthquake along the New Madrid fault line extending from Illinois, though Kentucky and southward.

Throughout, Helfand attends conventions for the burgeoning disaster-preparedness industry. As she asks people if they’ve ever thought about poverty as a disaster, we see that people just haven’t thought about it, largely because our cultural narratives condition us to blame individuals for poverty, not larger structural or systemic processes.

Cooked: Survival by Zip Code urges us to rethink poverty, to re-define disaster, and to explore—and insist on—allocating resources to support all lives, to challenge racism and its effects, and really deal with these everyday disasters we have not had the mentality to yet define and address as disasters.